JERUSALEM – Israel and the Palestinian Authority resumed diplomatic contacts Wednesday after a two-week freeze, and Israel agreed to suspend targeted killings of Palestinian militants — two more steps toward a cease-fire and a resumption of peace talks.
Also Wednesday, Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs held their second meeting in several hours on completing plans for the deployment of 1,500 Palestinian officers at flashpoints in central and southern Gaza.
Commanders met at a key junction in southern Gaza, ahead of Thursday's deployment.
About 100 Jewish settlers came to the junction to protest the security coordination. Settlers flattened tires of Palestinian police vehicles, one of the Palestinian commanders said.
The relative calm of the past week was marred by a brief burst of violence in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, including Palestinian rocket fire and the killing of a Palestinian girl, apparently by Israeli army fire. Doctors initially said the girl was 3, but later said she might be a little older.
It appeared unlikely the violence would slow the momentum toward a truce.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat (search) and a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Weisglass (search), met Wednesday to discuss the emerging cease-fire deal and prepare for a meeting between Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search). The two have been in touch by phone for several days.
Sharon had cut off ties with the Palestinian Authority two weeks ago, after militants killed six Israeli civilians at a Gaza cargo crossing. However, the freeze was short-lived, with Israeli and Palestinian security officials resuming contacts several days later.
Erekat said his meeting with Weisglass did not produce a summit date, but that it was held in a very good atmosphere.
A senior U.S. envoy, meanwhile, was arriving later Wednesday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the terms of a cease-fire. Earlier this week, Palestinian militant groups had agreed to suspend attacks on Israel, provided the Israeli military halts operations, including arrest raids and targeted killings.
Israeli security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said late Tuesday that the military has agreed to halt the targeted attacks, mainly missiles fired from helicopters, in which dozens of fugitives and scores of bystanders have been killed since the outbreak of fighting in 2000.
The security officials said Israel would not act on its current target list of militants, but they warned that if Palestinians resume hostile activity, they will target those responsible.
Israel informed the Palestinians of the decision, the security officials said.
On Tuesday, Hamas' top leader told The Associated Press that his group is ready to suspend attacks on Israel if it stops targeting militant leaders and releases Palestinian prisoners.
"This is a moment of test," Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal (search), who is based in Damascus, Syria, said by cellular phone. "It puts the responsibility on the international community and the United States to force Israel to recognize the Palestinian rights."
Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert (search) stopped short of confirming Israel's decision Wednesday, but indicated a change in policy, saying Israel needs to respond to Palestinian efforts to prevent attacks on Israel. "If there is a real change (in Palestinian efforts) ... this is something we need to relate to," he told Israel Army Radio.
However, the Israeli military has not halted arrest raids, particularly in the West Bank.
Abbas was to leave Friday for visits to Egypt, Jordan, Russia and Turkey. If he obtains U.S.- and Egyptian-backed guarantees that Israel will halt military operations, he is expected to return to the Gaza Strip for a formal cease-fire declaration, Palestinian officials said.
Israeli and Palestinian generals decided at a two-hour meeting late Tuesday on a plan for the deployment of Palestinian police in central and southern Gaza. Police had taken up positions in the northern half of Gaza over the weekend, to try to prevent rocket and mortar fire on Israeli communities. Officers were to deploy in southern Gaza on Thursday.
Overnight, Palestinian police prevented three attempts by militants to fire mortars and rockets from northern Gaza, Palestinian officials said, refusing to give detail.
In southern Gaza, where officers are not yet deployed, militants fired at least one rocket, the Israeli military said. In one incident, in the central town of Deir el-Balah, Israeli troops returned fire at the militants, the army said.
A Palestinian girl was killed in her Deir el-Balah home by the army's return fire, her relatives said. Doctors said the girl was killed by shots to the head.